The Recruitment Hackers Podcast

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Kim Howell, Chief People Officer at ERC, started her career as a call center agency some twenty odd years ago. In this episode she tells the story of shifting to remote work in various continents in 48 hours, how to keep morale up through remote structures and a new way of hiring.

Show Notes

Welcome to the recruitment hackers podcast. A show about innovations, technology and leaders in the recruitment industry brought to you by Talkpush, the leading recruitment automation platform.

Max: Good morning and welcome back to the Recruitment Hackers podcast with me Max Armbruster, talking to some of the thought leaders and leading executives in the talent acquisition space, looking at how they're leveraging recruitment and talent acquisition to give them an edge for their business.

And today I am honored and pleased to welcome on the show Kim Howell Chief People Officer at ERC. Welcome Kim. Thanks for joining. 

Kim: Thanks for having me, Max. Good to be here. 

Max: So, Kim, we're going to be talking about how you and ERC have adapted to the new normal and how your organization has responded to the challenges of the pandemic and the transition to work from home.

Then we'll see where the conversation takes us. But, before we go into that, perhaps, if you would, give us a brief introduction on what you do and your background and on ERC.

Kim: Absolutely. So, yeah, I'm currently with the ERC. I've been in the industry now for 25 years.

However, I'm still 21, so don't do the math. Okay. I started years ago in a call center in Buffalo, New York. As an agent on the phones, collecting past due bills and, you know, throughout the years, I attribute a lot of my successes to the fact that I stayed very grounded in where I came from.

I think that you can exceed much better in business if you did the work you're supporting now as an executive. So ERC, I've been with them now, gosh, since 2006. It's been a little bit of a blur because it's an excellent and forward moving company. We're a global BPO. We support our clients cradle to grave.

Anything from phone work, chat, email,  tech support, you know what I mean, full global provider. We really strive on having the best experience, starting with our applicant experience through to our candidates’ experience onto the employees’ experience, which we all know deeply impacts the client's experience and our customer's experience.

So that's one of the things that we've really held true to. 

Max: All right. Thank you. And I think collections is indeed a skill that will serve anybody for the long run. I certainly have been doing a lot of collections over the last few weeks. It doesn't matter, you know, where you are, whether it's Chief People Officer or CEO, I think you have to collect sometimes.

So, well, that was my experience with the recent few months. We had a bit of a scare on who would be paying the bills on time. Tell us about your scary moments from the last four months at the company level. 

Kim: Yeah. So first and foremost, biggest scariest moment is how do we protect our staff, right.

Clients absolutely being our top priority. And our staff being the top priority to one, keep them healthy and to support the business. And at the end of the day, we wanted to make sure that we could retain the most number of employees because it's a scary time for them, right? Their kids are being sent home from school.

Things are getting shut down. You know, they're getting locked away at home to quarantine and not everyone was getting locked away in the best circumstances. So our biggest scary moment is how do we keep our staff to still have the best experience while keeping their jobs? We were very fortunate that we were prepared.

You know, outside of your typical disaster recovery plans and what do you do if, and knowing that a lot of our sites are in Hurricane Valley, you know, we're pretty nimble. But that was kind of the scariest moment, will the staff be able to work from home? Will we be able to deploy them quick enough?

And then how do we continue our business, in this new norm? We executed very quickly. And I think that's what we are most proud of. Although it might've felt chaotic. Although maybe in the background, there was some chaos. I don't know that we ever let it get out. 

Max: You, you were telling me earlier, you moved to a work from home in a 48 hour span.And I guess over multiple countries, which geographies do you operate in? 

Kim: So currently we are in the United States, the Dominican Republic, India and South Africa. 

Max: Okay. So that's about five or six different time zones. If my math is correct and two and a half languages, or, well, one English.

But, what was some of the logistics that you had to deal with that transition? In late March. How did you figure out the move to work from home in such a short timeframe? 

Kim: Yeah, so domestically, it was a little bit easier. It was a matter of letting our employees know when you go home today unplug everything on your desktop monitor screen, computer units, your headphones, everything that you need, unplug it, put in your car and take it home. Right. And obviously we had inventoried those and done the right signup process. So it was a little bit easier there, weird feeling to watch all of your equipment walking out the door.

But it was easier in the Dominican Republic, a little bit differently due to laws there, they couldn't necessarily walk out with stuff. So we had to deploy our transportation team to deliver the desktops, to all of our agents that had the ability to work at home. Right. And there's a lot that goes with that.

We were having everyone do their, you know, internet speed tests to find out whether or not they could work from home. If they couldn't we were trying to cure my five devices to support the internet that they would need. And then obviously trying to get more equipment when the entire nation is going work at home at the exact same time you had, a lot of supply versus demand concerns.

Can we get enough headsets to continue to support ongoing recruitment efforts? But yet in about 48 hours, we were back up and running very little downtime. Couple little hiccups along the way as we figured out tech solutions or internet concerns. But at the end of the day, you know, very little client impact, nearly no employee impact.

There's a few clients that were not comfortable with the work at home or work from home solution. That's really the only place that we saw any employee impact, but anyone that was not working. 

Max: Those customers will probably be out of business soon enough. I don't wish that of course, but they may sing a different tune today than they did three months ago, of course.

Kim: Agreed

Max: And so you delivered 800 PCs to people's homes, you have to hire a few trucks to, to run that operation. I presume. 

Kim: Yeah, within DR, 800 total pieces of equipment, deployed within a matter of days, we used everyone's personal vehicle that could drive. Obviously we had a, there were some deadlines that the government had put into place that you have to have it all done by this day.

So it was definitely a scattering of anyone that has a car, or two hands and can drive. Let's go. Because you need to pick up these equipments and you need to get them delivered in. It was a wonderful showing, a force by our employees there, folks that weren’t part of the transportation team that became part of it, just to get it deployed.

And I think that really speaks volumes, well, not just, you know, of ERC and our culture, but definitely of our folks, down there in the DR, just working together to make sure everyone can stay working. 

Max: I didn't realize you were present in South Africa and India as well. We also have clients in these geographies at Talkpush. I'm a big traveler. I noticed that these waves did come at a different time and what people don't talk about is the universal kind of nature of this crisis. Almost every country reacted the same way. And every group reacted the same way. We keep talking about our differences, but really those kind of universal responses.

One thing that I keep hearing back though, is we didn't think that emerging markets were able to work from home. We didn't think that we had the right internet speed, but these were, you know, these were overcome a little bit easier than people had thought that it would be. Does that reflect your experience?

Kim: It does. And for the most part, there were a few folks that we had to furlough because they did not have the internet support that they needed or, and we couldn't, for whatever reason, get them a device or even with the device it wouldn’t work and what was most prevalent is their home environment didn't support a work at home situation, right. Five kids, kids screaming and yelling all day, multiple, dogs barking, whatever the case may be. 

And also, especially when you look at some of our folks in the DR it's kind of a different environment, right? You have multigenerational families. So it's not where you can lock yourself away in a room and get work done. So we had to make sure that they had the opportunity to work from home. 

Max: Yeah. The sad part is these are the families that probably need the job the most. If you need the income and you need to have the structure in your life where you can get away from that noise. Yeah. All the more, traumatic this crisis would have been.

It goes back to your earlier point that, you know, people need a job sometimes even more than they need the income. They just need that structure. 

Kim: Yeah. And you know, that's one of the things that did work out well for us, both domestically and in our international sites. For the clients that could not do work at home because of whatever security restrictions that they had.

We were able to classify some of our staff as essential workers. So we were very selective in who was going to be an essential worker. If you can work at home, work from home. If you can't we're going to find a way to get you right size or rehomed to the projects that's essential so that we can keep you employed or keep you in a safe harbor or whatever the case may be.

So there was some shuffling of roles and responsibilities based upon people's abilities. 

Max: The talent pool that you're picking from now is going to be vastly expanded with your work at home program. And you were telling me before our call that, you've seen a significant increase the applicants from pre-crisis to today's, right now we're at the end of July, almost August. Can you give us the numbers in terms of how much of an increase have you seen over this period? 

Kim: Yeah, actually, absolutely I can. And we've seen a few shifts over this new norm or the COVID period. So historically when we were hiring for, there are brick and mortar sites, we saw anywhere from 400 to 600 applicants per month, right.

Pending on recruitment needs. At the time, once we went to work at home, that volume increased to 3,500 a month. That was fairly significant. And we didn't have the time to double our staff or more appropriately up it by 10 more people to keep up with that volume because it takes time to train a recruiter.

It takes time to get them up to speed. Then we really had to find ways to deal with that increase in volume without the candidates experience being monopolized. And that's one of the things that we really. We had to get creative with technology and we had to get creative processes, right? Because the processes of the past to have one on one interviews and one-on-one screens, none of that works unless you want to give yourself three months to reach back to a candidate.

And that's a horrible experience, right? Especially in today's environment, when everyone needs that immediate gratification, you need to respond to them within 24 hours or you've lost them. That's no longer a warm lead for our recruiting staff. And, you know, not only that, but the shift in the demographics of people that were applying was also different.

So historically work at home, you see about 70% part-time utilization, meaning people looking for part time work, 30% looking for full time. In the  COVID environment so many full time workers were displaced that that completely reversed, where we saw 70% seeking full time employment and only 30 seeking part time.

So it changes scheduling. It changes again, the process flow when we recruit fundamentally changed and, and the how .

Max: it sounds like it's a better talent pool to choose from, which makes sense. When you go from 3.5% unemployment to whatever it is today, maybe 10 times that yeah. 

Kim: You know, max, it's funny, it's not necessarily a better candidate. And that's one of the things that has one of the places where we get to change our questioning. And our processes, because if you think about it, historically, the only people that were applying for work from home are folks that had a need to work from home, not a want, a need, right? Because they're differently abled. They are working parents, they are single parents, whatever the case may be. Now it's different. 

So you have people that have never worked from home and don't understand the discipline it takes to work from home  applying for a job that will have you locked at home all the time. And that's, it's really in the recruitment process.

We'd never, before had to explain that because the only people applying for work at home are folks that did it in the past. Now we're having to spend time of our recruitment process explaining what to expect working from home. Because it's easy to get distracted by the load of laundry that needs to get changed out or a TV show that's on during the day that you don't typically get to watch or the doorbell ringing.

They're really making sure that we're explaining the expectations of working from home before we even get into whether or not you're a good fit for us. 

Max: Do you have a dress code for people to work from home? 

Kim: No, we really don't.

Max: The benefits of the new normal 

Kim: It is, and that's one of the things that, and it was weird that you say that because when we initially moved to work from home, our brick and mortar folks, we saw an immediate uptick in productivity because now they're sleeping a little bit longer because they don't have Jacksonville traffic commute time.

So they're getting that extra couple of minutes. It has them more refreshed. They can go get their cup of coffee very quickly versus having to wait for break time and then wait in line to get to the Keurig machine. There's all of these conveniences of home, it was new and fresh and exciting.

Everybody was uber productive. Then the challenges became kind of post recruitment. Post-deployment post all of these things. Now it has shifted to engagement because it's very easy to lose your staff at home. Because you don't see them. You don't know when they're having a bad day, cause you can't look at them.

So that's really where Zoom and the different technologies that we use for engagement became very necessary just to know if they're having a bad day. 

Max: Yeah, we do a few of these things ourselves internally. We have a coffee break or a water cooler chat where we're randomly paired with somebody in the company to do a random chat and related things help and create connectivity.

Of course, the zoom calls, are a factor, but right now I'm trying to a company, 60 people. Um, I kept not ask all to come together, right. So I have to commit method of thinking.

training, classroom, tactical

training or onboarding. 

Kim: Yep. So through training and onboarding, we have a couple different things that we do, um, onboarding right now we do in a group setting and we do a couple sessions throughout the day because we do hire route multiple time zones. So everyone can't always join at the same time. So we'll set up multiple times throughout the day, both with am and PM offerings, but it is a total group session.

And what we’ve learned with that, even in the past,you know, post recruitment or onboarding has always been in a classroom setting. Let's all get together, but now you have even more opportunities to compound factor that in. Classrooms of the past: 20 people. And our classrooms of today are still not much more than that.

But you can onboard 50 at one time, as you can fit more people into a classroom, a virtual classroom. You still want to break out for the actual training, because obviously you want to make sure that they're getting the attention that they need, and that you can keep up with the questions that are happening via polling or chat.

But from an onboarding experience, you can onboard multiple people at one time. So it really makes the team more efficient because they're not spending as much time on those isolated touch points. 

Max: You're using that for the, uh, for the interviewing process as well. These group sessions?

Kim: Ee are. And that was a very big shift that we had to make.

Like I mentioned earlier, application flow went from 400 to 600 to 3,500. It was impossible for our process of the past to keep up with that. Our former process was everybody got a one on one phone interview. And if you were advanced, then you sat down for a face to face interview with the hiring manager.

That's not realistic for 3,500 people. And again, there's no brick and mortar to bring them into you for that face to face. So one of the process changes that we did was that first initial phone interview, we'll invite anywhere from 10 to 15 people into that interview. And we'll have one group interview.

And this is just the preliminary interview. If you think about recruitment,  it's a joint sales effort as a candidate you need to sell me on why I should hire you. But as an employer, I also need to sell you on why you should want to work for us. So in this setting, I'm able to do that sales pitch one time versus 15 isolated times.

And if you think about a normal course of an interview, that phone interview is usually about 15 minutes long, sometimes a little bit longer for supervisory or executive low level roles. Obviously they're significantly longer, but think about 15 minutes over 20 candidates. Versus having those 20 candidates come to one 15 minute interaction so that I can give my sales pitch once, but more importantly, engagement of that team or excuse me of those candidates is so much better because typically these are awkward, right? They don't necessarily want to ask a question because what if it exposes me as having a weakness? Now it's a conversation. 

Max: Your story made me kind of flashback to when I was a job seeker, myself and I was invited for a group interview.

I flew from London to Paris for that interview, I think, or from somewhere to somewhere. And, I put on a suit, I took the train, I went to the office and then I was accepted, you know, welcomed into a conference room with 10 others and I had to do whole thing. And all of this was just like a buildup of tension and anxiety.

As I came to present myself, I was very, are you nervous. But if I have to talk about who I am for a couple of minutes, while I'm looking at my computer in the comfort of my home, I'm sure I can knock it out of the park, even 20 year old version of me, you know? Right. So, one of the tricks of recruitment is putting the candidate at ease so you can see really who they are, then you're working from a better place, actually, if you're letting that happen from their home. 

Kim: Yeah. And I think that putting them at ease is so important, especially in today's environment. It's a great point that you make Max, because if you look at where we are today and in the environment, So many people need a job and they're going to therefore tell you what they think you want to hear to get that job.

So it's not just a recruitment to put candidates in the seats of our training class, but recruitment needs to put the right candidates in the seats, in our training classes, ones that are going to have stickiness, and that are going to stick with us for a long period of time. Turnover is expensive.

Recruiting is expensive. So the less people you have to introduce into the organization, the better. So you really need that stickiness. Hmm, but then what the recruiters are really tasked with doing now is candidates need to be at ease. It's less about the skills they bring to the table, and it's more about their ability to be taught the skills we need them to have.

And that's really what we've changed in our philosophy, because it's not, we want to experience or you have to have X number of years in the industry. It's are you teachable? Because teachable individuals have more loyalty and have more stickiness. If I've taught you a scale. If I've taught you how to be successful.

And then more importantly, I've made you successful within the company, based upon the trainings. You're more apt to stick with us versus coming to me with 10 years experience and not necessarily liking the environment and know you can go someplace else. So we like to really have a good mix of tenured people with experience, and then just the teachable individuals go a long way.

Max: I don't know where you're going to get the best retention from, from the old timers or from the freshers. Because of courseboth come with a risk, um, going from 400 or 600, hires per month to, or candidates per month to 3,500, almost 10 X in volume. Um, You've been able to perhaps a bit to create a few more filters and what are some of the filters that we can use, that recruiters can use to determine if candidates are teachable or, or to make sure you hire people who are adapted to work at home?

Kim: Some of that is done even before we ever talked to them. And that's really where I think employers can leverage whether it's their ATS or just standard processes to have people self select their course, meaning what path are they going to take?

Beause we have various different openings, whether it's collections, chat, email, customer service, retention efforts, whatever the case may be. So you want to go through some questioning within the application process. That's going to have them select the right course. That's best for them. Are you looking for a PM shift?

Okay. Well, that's going to put you into a different pool than if you're open and can work whenever. So some of the questions that we do even before we talk to them, we have them do their internet speed tests. You know, you have to have proof of a workspace, show us your workspace, submit those pictures to us.

All that's done via our ATS portal. So that when we go to sit down with the candidates, we've already done all the checklist work, right. We already know that they pass the sniff test so to speak on a tech solution and an environmental solution. Now we need the teachables. And in that group setting, you'll be very surprised on how much you get from that.

Because one of the requirements of the interview is you have to be on camera, right? We need to see you. We need to know the reaction. So as people are asking questions, you can see the folks that have a ton of experience. They're either open to our answer or they're like, oh, I know the answer. Well, I know the answer means, you know, the answer of your past employer.

Not that you're going to be open to how we do it at ERC. So we do a lot of profiling in those interviews in just how receptive are you to people's questions, to our feedback, to our responses, and to our environment. So we like to read those facial expressions and you know, one of the problems with zoom is now I talk to my hands a lot.

It's the New Yorker in me. I can't help it. I always tell people to keep a distance. So I don't accidentally get to you. But some things you lose in zoom. So we always tell people, you know, we give them a zoom etiquette course before we do the interview. Sit back from your computer, don't have it right up on your face.

You know, we want it exactly, but we want it to be a good experience for everybody. We don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable. And that was one of the things and something I definitely recommend for employers to do for your recruiters. Don't assume everyone understands technology. As savvy is I'd like to pretend that I am, I was very new to zoom when we went into COVID. I was very used to, hey, meet me in the conference room. So I had to really educate myself on how to do a good zoom experience for my staff. And that's one of the things that we really had to sit down with the recruiters to say, how do you make it a good zoom experience for your candidates?

And, you know, you were talking earlier about some of the engagement activities. And I think so many people look at recruitment as being over once the job starts. And it's not, in my opinion, it's just starting. Our best applicant source are our staff. Refer is the key referrals, stickiness. They know what they're walking into, so you don't have that, or it's not what I expected turnover rate at play for referrals.

And it always tell everybody recruitment is a continuous effort. The employee that's been with the company for 20 years should be your best recruiter. They should be out there, you know, handing out cards. Here's, you know, we're hiring whatever the case may be. And we do a ton of engagement efforts.

We did a lip sync challenge the other day on zoom. And we brought everybody in and just did some lipsync battles. We've played charades via zoom. We've done impersonations. You have to guess the person there's so many different things that we've been able to do on zoom. And I know that sounds weird.

It's used as a recruitment tool, but think about it. How many people get to say, like, I actually had fun at work today and yes, it's a grind and we work hard and it's exhausting. But at the end of the day, I played charades with an executive. That was pretty cool. And I don't know many companies that do that.

So you've got to continue to invest in your business to make sure that recruitment stays exciting. 

Max: That is very creative. And my idea of creativity was we're going to send them sandwiches and beers at home, which probably works too. But this is good stuff. I am not looking forward to it, but I have a feeling that my Head of HR will organize some charades, unfortunately, all that.

Kim: It is super fun. 

Max: Yeah. I can do that. Maybe with a beer ,if I can combine the two. 

Kim: Yeah. That's what I was going to say. Send yourself, the sandwich and a beer and you're good. 

Max: All right. Well, you've given a lot of great ideas to our thinkers. To close it out and thinking about that continuous improvement you were talking about I really think that, we’re really at the beginning of this transition.

Where do you see the next level of automation? What are some of the stuff that your recruiters are still working on that you feel is a little too time consuming and you wish you could take off their desk how are you I'm imagining the next few months or a few years of innovation?

Kim: The biggest thing that I see right now is finding a way to capture both the voice component of recruiting and the text or context component. Right? So there's a ton of vendors out there that do a lot with whether it's profiling the video assessment or taking speech and keywords and all of these other things.

And we have our Mars application, which is our homegrown application that we use for text analytics or excuse me, speech analytics and the speech analytics are super important in recruiting by listening to the conversation and giving feedback or training opportunities to our recruiters. But more importantly, and what we want to tie together as we continue to evolve, our tech solutions is taking all the texts that happens within the application process, right? The resume.

Yeah. If it's required, if not just what they fill in on the app and looking at our success stories internally and tying the two together, you know, putting in that, if this, then that logic, within the entire recruitment process, because what we see when we manually look at it, which is a super time consuming and archaic process is, Hey, this person had all these work gaps.

They were not successful. Okay. Well, how do you drop those work gaps or put them into a different bin for a different type of work treatment to find out why are those work gaps? Was it contract work? You know, there's other things where we find a great success rate in our customer service arm of folks that come from Chick-Filet.

Everyone that I strictly as a huge customer service backing and, and really invested a ton of time in that. And I know it's weird. Right. Okay. So someone who served fast food is successful at a BPO. Absolutely. Because again, BPO is customer service. 

Max: Yeah. That doesn't shock me. I'm still trying to think how you can automate this, you know, when you do that group video group interview that you do, and you say you're, you're reading, people's faces to see, see how people react to what. I think the HireVues of the world do analytics around video, but I don't think anybody, maybe the Chinese government has figured out a way to analyze 12 faces set simultaneously and contextually.

But that is some next gen stuff should keep us busy for the next appointment.

Kim: At least. Right. And, and that's really where, you know, one of our biggest things is finding the right partner. That's trying to figure it out also, and let’s build it together. Right. That's because I don't think anyone's figured that out yet.

And I know it's coming and my goodness technology is advancing quicker than we can get through R and D with different vendors. So that's really where it's okay. Who's got the bandwidth, the savviness and the patience to deal with us in a partnership to build that. Because it's coming. And I look at the amount of time that my recruiters, I don't want to say waste because it's valuable, but right now, so much of recruitment is processing, not recruiting.

Yeah. And if you could find a way to automate those manual touch points, um, that are necessary to decide, do they get an interview or not? Using, you know, a data analytic tool on the resume using that data analytic tool on the conversation, now they can recruit. 

Max: I cringe at the thought that people are going to take the current crisis as an opportunity to revert back to bad behaviors and treat, you know, stop treating candidates nicely.

I get the feeling that is not going to happen at ERC. And, I really want to thank you, Kim, for your inspiring words and sharing the story of the last few months with us. I wish you and  ERC all the best.

Kim: Thank you so much. Thanks for your time. 

Max: Thanks Kim. Talk soon. 

Max: I had a lot of fun talking with Kim Howell, and you can see from her determination and attitude, how she managed to drive her career from working into collections all the way to Chief People Officer at ERC. That kind of leadership where an opportunity comes in the shape of a crisis to transform and move things around and where you have to start changing hats, putting on your logistics hats in order to facilitate hundreds of people staying at work and being able to continue, have structure in  their lives through this pandemic. So great chat Kim. I hope you stay on for more Recruitment Hackers Podcast.

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What is The Recruitment Hackers Podcast?

The Recruitment Hackers Podcast talks to leaders who have turned recruiting into a long-term competitive edge for their business. In those discussions, we explore ways to improve the candidate experience, we imagine the future of recruitment, and we discuss which digital strategies are performing well. This podcast is essential listening for talent acquisition professionals who want to win the war for talent through digitization, automation and tons of empathy for candidates.